Talking Turkey: The Israel deal and the retreat from neo-Ottomanism

The rapprochement with Israel is part of a broader retreat from the neo-Ottomanism that until recently guided Turkish foreign policy.

Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim addresses the media in Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim addresses the media in Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IT’S OVER. Six years after its climax, one of the most frustrating diplomatic crises Israel ever faced has come to an end, thanks to strategic constraints, economic circumstances and a political sobriety that made Islamist Turkey mend walls with the Jewish state.
The crisis peaked in 2010, but it already had been hinted at in 2003, when the newly elected Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to allow the US to invade Iraq from Turkey ‒ an unexpected snub to Washington that was gradually followed by hostility toward Jerusalem.
What began with repeated anti-Israeli jibes became, in 2009, a deafening insult when Erdogan stormed out of a panel discussion with then-president Shimon Peres in Davos, Switzerland, shouting: “You know well how to kill,” referring to fighting in Gaza at the time.
Whether that outburst was premeditated or spontaneous remains unclear, but the following year words became deeds when six boatloads of pro-Palestinian activists disembarked from Istanbul with the stated aim of breaking Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza.
The flotilla’s subsequent interception by IDF naval commandos resulted in Turkish activists attacking the Israelis, who fought back and killed nine Turks before capturing the vessel and leading it to the Israeli port of Ashdod.
The organizers’ stated destination, Gaza, thus remained unreached, but their broader hope – to poison Turkish-Israeli relations – was fully achieved.
Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador, recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, and then formally degraded diplomatic relations to the sound of Erdogan’s typically unrefined statement that Israel “wants an enemy,” and that Turkey will be “a hard and tough enemy.”
Though sponsored by a non-governmental organization – the Islamist IHH, Turkish initials for Humanitarian Relief Organization – the flotilla was inspired by Erdogan’s ongoing anti-Israel vitriol, and some believe he knew about it all along, even if he didn’t mastermind it.
Either way, the year before the flotilla incident, Erdogan canceled the Israel Air Force’s participation alongside American and other NATO members in Anatolian Eagle, Turkey’s flagship air force exercise. It was the end of an era of elaborate military cooperation that involved regular IAF drills above Turkey, usage of its airfields, and joint naval exercises.
In 2010, this fermenting hostility matured. Turkey would now become Israel’s antagonist, an inversion of the strategic ally it had been until Erdogan’s arrival in 2003, and still remained for several years after that turning point in Turkish history, when Ankara’s secular rulers of 80 years were replaced by their Islamist nemeses.
Now, following a complex diplomatic negotiation that lasted more than half-a-decade, Jerusalem and Ankara have signed a deal that reboots their relations.
The deal includes the restoration of ambassadors; Turkish cancellation, by legislation, of all legal claims against Israeli officers; a Turkish commitment to prevent anti-Israeli terrorist activity from its soil; and an Israeli payment of $20 million to a Turkish fund that will transfer funds to the casualties’ families. The recipients, destinations, size, frequency and conditions of the payments are to be decided by the Turkish government.
Well before these conditions were agreed upon, Israel fulfilled the first Turkish demand – an apology – when US President Barack Obama handed his phone to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the end of a state visit to Israel in 2013, and told him he had Erdogan on the line.
The US has indeed been an instrumental broker in this reconciliation, with Vice President Joe Biden leading the American effort, and also being briefed personally by Netanyahu about the deal’s details the evening before its announcement.
On the Israeli side, the deal is largely the fruit of retired diplomat Yosef Ciechanover’s wisdom and discretion. Now 83, the Berkeley-trained lawyer, retired diplomat, and brother of Nobel Laureate chemist Aaron Ciechanover was thrust into the flotilla- affair’s fray as Israel’s representative to the UN’s commission of inquiry.
Finding a wise and fair partner in that panel’s chairman, former prime minister of New Zealand Geoffrey Palmer, Ciechanover convinced him that Israel’s blockade of Gaza was legal. The committee consequently accepted this principle, as well as its implication, that Israel had the right to inspect vessels en route to Gaza.
Ciechanover’s subsequent role as head of Israel’s reconciliation talks with Ankara was the natural continuation of his role on that UN panel, leading to the main concession he obtained from Ankara: the de-facto recognition of Israel’s right to blockade Gaza.
EAGER TO help Ankara save face, Ciechanover persuaded Netanyahu to let Turkey build in Gaza a power station, a hospital, and a desalination plant, and to let humanitarian aid into the Strip through Ashdod Port. This allowed Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim to announce in Ankara the departure to Gaza of a vessel carrying 10,000 tons of aid, which indeed set sail July 1.
The removal of the blockade from the dispute was then underscored by Erdogan’s public reprimand of the IHH organization for having initiated the flotilla’s journey in the first place.
“You didn’t ask my permission,” said Erdogan, a claim that some doubt, but which now concedes his regret of that move’s results, as does his evasive ruling, that what Turkey will now be allowed to do in Gaza effectively means it is no longer blockaded.
Internal opposition to the deal appears to have had little weight in Erdogan’s considerations. Embodying Turkish militancy, Erdogan, now president, can afford criticism from his right, such as that of IHH, and also from his left, where Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition, attacked the deal’s promise to lift the legal claims against IDF officers.
On the Israeli side, opposition leader Isaac Herzog also attacked the deal, twice – first, for rewarding terrorists financially, and second, for failing to retrieve the bodies of fallen soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, and to free Abera Mengistu and Hisham a-Sayid, two mentally ill Israeli civilians held by Hamas since entering Gaza, separately and voluntarily, in 2014.
Herzog’s attacks were ineffective. On the compensation clause, Ciechanover noted that the Israeli payment will not go to the terrorists’ families, but to a fund that will be set up by the Turkish government, which will then manage it as it sees fit. Ciechanover believes this mechanism legally precludes a precedent that other terrorists can use in the future.
Concerning the bodies and the prisoners, experts agree that there was no way to get the Turks to deliver them. Moreover, they could not be allowed to become part of the bilateral issues that the deal is all about because Turkey did not kill the fatalities or capture the prisoners. And lastly, conditioning the deal on Hamas’s goodwill would have turned it into a factor in Israel’s foreign relations, a status that runs contrary to Israel’s national interest.
Ironically, this is the flip-side of Ankara’s decision to put the Turkish national interest ahead of its quest to help the Palestinian cause. Erdogan’s phone call to President Mahmoud Abbas, in which he informed him of the deal, was effectively a statement that Turkey is now looking after its own interests by mending walls with Israel, and thus ignoring Palestinian wishes that Jerusalem and Ankara remain at loggerheads indefinitely.
This is on the diplomatic side. Politically, Netanyahu might pay a price if the families vindicate reports that he promised them the deal would include the return of the bodies and prisoners.
That said, the deal is now fact, and its implications for both sides cannot be exaggerated.
THE MOST immediate and glaring result of the deal will be in commerce.
Turkish-Israeli trade remained brisk even while diplomatic relations reached a nadir. However, Israeli tourism and arms deals practically vanished, and Israeli gas was being dealt to everyone except its most natural and thirsty client – Turkey.
In tourism, Turkey’s glitzy resorts and clean beaches became for Israelis last decade what the Bahamas are for Americans, attracting in 2008 a record 540,000 Israeli vacationers ‒ often entire workplaces organized by unions.
This number fell twice: it plunged 60 percent following Erdogan’s attack on Peres, and then dwindled to a trickle of mostly Israeli Arabs following the flotilla incident.
While Israelis now have good reason to feel welcome again, they are deterred by the terrorism that has come to plague Turkey, such as the attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on June 28 – the day after the agreement with Israel was signed – which left 45 people dead.
Still, Israeli tourists are expected to begin returning, and experience shows that once such traffic resumes, it steadily grows.
Arms trade is much trickier. The last big deal in this field was a shipment of Israel- upgraded battle tanks in 2010, and experts agree that on this sensitive front it will take time until confidence can be restored to its pre-Erdogan levels.
Still, industrial and agricultural goods have endured the bad years and will now flow even more easily, likely raising the two countries’ already hefty $6 billion in annual bilateral trade.
Moreover, noticing Turkish exporters’ loss of the ability to drive exports into Iraq and Jordan through war-ravaged Syria, Israel quietly developed an alternative, whereby Turkish trucks are shipped to Haifa and then cross into Jordan. This has been happening regularly as Syria became impassable, and will now likely intensify.
What was not happening until now, but probably interests Turkey most, are gas shipments.
Ironically, Turkey’s industrialized economy lacks oil and gas, in stark contrast to its un-industrialized Arab neighbors and to semi-industrialized Iran. At the same time, shipments from Turkey’s main gas supplier, Russia, became questionable in the wake of the tension between the two countries following Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter plane last year.
Though Russia did not disrupt the gas supply, the vulnerability to such a move became apparent and underscored Turkey’s need for an alternative. Israel’s newfound Mediterranean deposits are a natural choice because they are but a several hours’ cruise away from Turkish shores.
Now that relations are restored, the plan is to lead this gas through an undersea pipeline to Turkey, from where it also can proceed to Europe in the pipe that crosses from Azerbaijan to the Balkans. That is what Netanyahu meant when he said while presenting the agreement: “The agreement with Turkey opens a window to economic and energetic cooperation.”
That is also why Ciechanover, when asked whether the $20m. earmarked for the Turkish fund was not too high, said the deal will generate Israel benefits much larger than $20m.
THE GAS relationship will turn Israel and Turkey into strategic partners along the lines of David Ben-Gurion’s “periphery strategy” of 1958, which created a regional alliance among non-Arab Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia and Israel.
While much has changed since then – Arab countries have made peace with Israel and Iran has become an enemy – Turkey’s current move represents renewed recognition that its regional situation demands intimacy with Israel.
Erdogan’s original quest to build inroads to the Arab world – in sharp contrast to his secular predecessors’ westward orientation – has collapsed in the wake of the Arab civil wars.
Erdogan’s open hostility toward Syrian leader Bashar Assad; the three million Syrian refugees that now burden the Turkish economy; and the unleashing from Syria of suicide bombers and missiles on Turkish towns all served to remind Ankara that it had a big problem on its Arab flank.
Moreover, Turkey’s Syrian problem is stoked by Iran, which means that in any Turkish reading, Tehran is currently a rival, much the way it often was for the Ottoman Empire. On top of this, Turkey also found itself dueling with Assad’s Russian patron, an altogether dangerous antagonist with whom the Turks have fought 12 wars in recent centuries.
That is why Turkish foreign policy demanded the sharp U-turn it just made ‒ first by reconciling with Israel, and then by reconciling with Russia when Erdogan apologized to Putin in a phone call.
Incidentally, previous prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a political scientist, was considered the prophet and theoretician of the neo-Ottoman foreign policy that sought to turn Turkey’s face from Europe back to the Middle East it once ruled.
Davutoglu was replaced in May by the much more soft-spoken and pragmatic Yildirim, a move that now seems to have been not only about personalities, but also about philosophies and strategies.
With Egypt now an adversary, Iran a rival and Syria an enemy, neo-Ottomanism has been tested and proved impractical, not to say disastrous. Israel, at the same time, proved costly as a foe and beneficial as a friend.
The consequent rapprochement with the Jewish state obviously does not mean that Israel can expect the restoration anytime soon of the warm relations it had with Erdogan’s secular predecessors.
Erdogan has compromised his Palestinian commitment, but the Palestinian cause remains dear to him, and there is no indication he abandoned the anti-Zionist views he has voiced repeatedly, nor the anti-Semitic undertones in which they sometimes came wrapped.
The new relations will also be tested by the Kurdish challenge Ankara faces. Israel will have to go out of its way on this front to display its neutrality, even while backing the Kurdish cause outside of Turkey’s borders. Israel will also have to stay above the Turkish- Egyptian fray, which is fed by Erdogan’s open backing of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and his insistence that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime is illegal.
Similarly, Jerusalem will have to be careful to craft the energy relationship with Ankara in a way that does not risk the alliance it has forged in recent years with Athens and Nicosia. That alliance now includes joint aerial and naval exercises, as well as an IDF attaché stationed in Athens, serving from there also in Nicosia, Bucharest and Sofia.
The common denominator among these capitals is that they are former Ottoman realms. In those cities, and in Jerusalem, news of neo-Ottomanism’s death is, for now, suspected as premature, and will remain such in the years to come. In Ankara, however, that misadventure’s funeral is now under way.